In my time at PAX East 2018, I had the opportunity to play three different Action Role Playing Games (ARPGs) that each invoked the Souls series in different ways. One was a remaster of the game that catapulted the series to fame, another was an anime take on the genre, while the last—surprisingly—took a page from Journey.
Dark Souls Remastered (Switch)
Dark Souls Remastered is a game that fans have been patiently waiting for. While it will find a home easily on PS4 and Xbox One, the Switch edition of the game will fill the ARPG niche that has been notably missing from Nintendo’s suite of games for the console since launch. Which is why I was excited to get some hands-on time with the game at PAX East to test it out.
The demo was twenty minutes in length, with no restrictions as to where I could go. In that time, I sprinted out of the tutorial, killed the Taurus demon, and barely managed to run past the wyvern on the bridge. And despite the short length of the demo, I can confidently say that this is Dark Souls, through and through. Enemy and item placement were familiar, the combat was identical thanks to the consistent 30 FPS that stays true to the original. Just like riding a bike, you never forget how to play Dark Souls.
Which is why I was confused when I pushed the button to dodge and instead stood still like a fool. Upon further experimentation, I realized that while the buttons themselves were identical to the original game, with B for dodging and A for confirmation, the layout of the Switch controller means that they are in different positions than they normally are on an Xbox or DualShock controller. As a result, the biggest challenge for me wasn’t the combat, but my own muscle memory as I struggled to adjust to the new layout. More than once, this resulted in my death as I wondered why I wasn’t drinking an Estus Flask or failed to dodge what would otherwise have been an easy to avoid attack.
My other concern for Dark Souls Remastered is the handheld mode. While it ran perfectly fine in this mode, I often struggled to see finer details in the environment and in gameplay, particularly the targeting reticle when you lock on to enemies. For a game that relies on such details to tell its story and to telegraph attacks, this is worrisome.
But when it comes down to it, Dark Souls Remastered is a nearly identical experience on the Switch as it was on consoles back in 2011. I’ll reserve my judgement on using the handheld mode until I can spent more time with it, but for now I’m looking forward to playing Dark Souls on the go.
Code Vein has had me intrigued since its reveal last year. While it clearly takes inspiration from the Souls series, the anime aesthetic looked different enough to make it stand out on its own. When I had the opportunity to play it at PAX East, I walked away from it mildly disappointed.
That’s because, while the design of the characters themselves is striking, the world design and enemies leave a lot to be desired. I wandered through generic looking caverns, with a run-of-the-mill cityscape serving as the boss arena, neither of which were impressive in detail or scope. And the enemy design failed to stand out, with the boss being a rather bland take on a dark knight, except with bigger spikes. That said, the characters look fantastic, and I hope that the demo area was worse than the full game.
Surprisingly, Code Vein resembles Bloodborne more than anything else. Combat is primarily based on dodging, though there are block and parry buttons, with characters moving swiftly in and out of combat with larger than life swords and other weapons. Combat was fast-paced, and stringing together a series of attacks felt good. The magic system, known as ‘Gifts’, seemed weaker, but that was more to do with the fact that I had no explanation of the system or what each of the Gifts did rather than a design problem.
I can’t speak for the narrative and backstory, because my demo included none of it. I had no context for the area I was exploring, who I was and what I was supposed to be doing. This is a game that is appealing to Souls fans, but it lacks that mysterious quality that drew so many of us into it. For now, Code Vein is a game that has interesting ideas, but lacks the polish needed to make it truly stand out.
I went into my demo for Aurora44’s Ashen with no expectations besides the fact that it was an ARPG. When my short time with the game was finished, it became one of my most anticipated games of the year.
Compared to many other Soulslike games, Ashen is willing to take things slow, perhaps even a bit too slow at times. Walking and running through the world takes some time, and there were moments where I wanted to swing my club a little bit faster, dodge a couple fractions of a second quicker. But the combat itself is methodical, and the slower pace works in its favour when you’re engaged in the more intense fights, such as the boss fight in my demo.
But the combat isn’t where the game caught my attention. The world design is enrapturing, using a gorgeous art style that is notably lacking in detail on character and enemy faces, and every corner feels like it is hiding some eons-old mystery waiting to be discovered. It’s reminiscent of how you discover the backstory in Dark Souls, only the full game promises to include quests and a town hub.
It’s in the multiplayer where Ashen truly begins to forge its own path. Taking a page from Journey, Ashen‘s multiplayer revolves around people wandering in and out of your world. No matchmaking, no dropping a sign—instead, you’ll come across people as you play. There’s also no voice or text communication, meaning you’ll have to rely on gestures and spinning in circles if you want to convey something. If it weren’t for the fact that my partner was sitting at the station next to mine, I would have never known who they were.
More to the point, you’ll often require that second player to open up one of the dungeons that populate the game’s open world. The one I explored was relatively short, and culminated in an intense boss fight that I just barely managed to defeat after my partner died before it. The aftermath of that fight was what truly caused Ashen‘s claws to sink into me, however, as I encountered a giant who emerged out of the water, towering over me as she accepted an offering. It was awe-inspiring, completely unexpected, and made me excited for Ashen’s release later this year.